The PHB states that a wizard can copy a known spell onto another spellbook.

Replacing the Book. You can copy a spell from your own spellbook into another book—for example, if you want to make a backup copy of your spellbook. This is just like copying a new spell into your spellbook, but faster and easier, since you understand your own notation and already know how to cast the spell. You need spend only 1 hour and 10 gp for each level of the copied spell.

What about copying an unknown spell without transcribing it ?

IE My wizard PC finds a spellbook containing several interesting spells, but for any reason he cannot take the spellbook away. Can he copy the spells onto parchment, that can be a valid spellbook1, then save it for later transcription ?

Would an Intelligence (Arcana) check be required to correctly grasp the other wizard notation system and produce a usable copy ?

The surefire solution would be to ask the other wizard to produce the copy himself, but that supposes a friendly, living, available, ..., other wizard.

1 PHB about a spellbook appearance :

The Book’s Appearance. Your Spellbook is a unique compilation of Spells, with its own decorative flourishes and margin notes. It might be a plain, functional leather volume that you received as a gift from your Master, a finely bound gilt-­edged tome you found in an ancient Library, or even a loose collection of notes scrounged together after you lost your previous Spellbook in a mishap.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Effectively taking a photocopy and then translating it later. Nice idea \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 10:19

2 Answers 2


Your DM needs to decide

The rules on page 114 of the PHB only cover transcribing the spells into your own notation into your spell book (also called copying), and copying spells that are already transcribed into your own notation into another book.

However, it is established that normal spellbooks are not magical. That means, it should be possible to create an exact one-to-one copy of an existing spellbook.

How this could be achieved would be up to your DM to adjucate.

As you do not know which little splurch and dot is or is not important to the functioning of the spell before transcribing it into your own notation, you would not be able to leave anything out and would need to create an exact replica of the original symbols. This very similar to a forgery, if you so want. There are rules in the game to forge documents, and they require tool proficiency in the forgery kit. You DM could rule that you need to spend downtime to forge the copy.

Alternatively, when you copy your own spells you do need only inks worth 10 gp and one hour, as you cite above. Your DM could rule that copying a spell without understanding could be done at the same cost, maybe with an Intelligence (Arcana) skill check or a Dexterity ability check, as you save yourself all the time and cost of experimenting to understand the spell. Or they could rule that it takes longer and costs more. It's up to them to decide.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1, I completely agree that the "spellbook" aspect is not functionally important; this is simply about making an accurate copy of a document. (And it may well be that the 8-Intelligence Rogue with no Arcana training is better at this than the Wizard.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 11, 2022 at 11:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good catch on the forgery aspect, that is certainly the most reasonable solution ! The other answer mentions taking a rubbing, that can be considered as an auto-succes forgery without needing the proficiency. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 14, 2022 at 10:26

Some published adventures seem to suggest so

The PHB says

Copying that spell into your Spellbook involves reproducing the basic form of the spell, then deciphering the unique system of notation used by the Wizard who wrote it. You must practice the spell until you understand the Sounds or gestures required, then transcribe it into your Spellbook using your own notation.

Note that this is a four-step process:

  1. reproduce the basic form of the spell
  2. decipher the unique system of notation
  3. practice the spell until you understand it
  4. transcribe it using your own notation

Even though this whole process is what is required to 'copy a spell into your spellbook', only the last step explicitly involves actually writing something in your Spellbook, and the first step does not say where you are reproducing it. Further, the cost given for time and materials is stated as the total cost for the process as a whole, and not broken down for each step (and see this question and this question).

Thus, I think it is possible that the first step, reproducing the spell's form, could involve just what you suggest, making a quick reproduction of the lines and shapes of the spell on some surface, perhaps not even your spellbook, without understanding what any of them mean. Steps (2) and (3) are likely where most of the time and money are spent, trying to figure out what the symbols mean and how to actually cast the spell. As you note, making a 'back-up' copy of a spell you already know has a specifically delineated time and cost less than that of deciphering an unknown spell, so the replacement cost might be assumed to be entirely equivalent to step (4).

Have a read of the community wiki answer to Thomas Markov's question Do any published adventures contain spells a wizard can copy that aren't written in a spellbook?, in particular for the five rocks in Storm King's Thunder and the statue in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

From Storm King's Thunder,

Chapter 10 says, in Room 25 - Library (p. 212):

Five rocks have the following wizard spells inscribed on them: antimagic field, conjure elemental, fabricate, legend lore, and stone shape. The rocks function like pages of a spellbook, but each weighs 600 pounds. A character who has a spellbook can record these spells in it.

The rocks weigh enough that the characters are unlikely to be taking them with them, and certainly wouldn't have the permission of their owners to do so. While combat can occur at the greater location in which these rocks are placed, it is not in an area that is actively hostile to the characters. Still, the characters are unlikely to be there for long. If they are unsuccessful in their goals while at the location, they will be defeated and expelled, imprisoned, or killed. If they are successful, they will quickly move on. Neither scenario argues for them spending much time at the location.

One of the spells available is 8th level. The rules for 'deciphering and copying' a spell would require that any wizard not of the abjuration school needs access to the rock for 16 hours. To collect several of the spells would require days. If these rocks are indeed placed for wizard characters to gain these spells, then ask yourself what seems more likely: that the wizard can record the symbols as undeciphered patterns in their book and then decipher and copy them later after having left the location, or that the characters are meant to stay at this location for hours or days and also happen to have thousands of gp of ink and experimental materials on hand?

In Dungeon of The Mad Mage there is a stone statue with a likeness of a spellbook from which a spell can be obtained:

On level 7, in the courtyard of Maddgoth's Castle (p. 102)

Statue. In the center of this open-air courtyard, surrounded by gardens of glittering, pebble-sized crystals, stands a 9-foot-tall statue of a plump human wizard (...) reading from a spellbook. (...) Carved into the pages of its open spellbook is the Mordenkainen's Sword spell. A wizard can take a rubbing of the spell and copy it into a spellbook.

Here the text explicitly says "A wizard can take a rubbing of the spell and copy it into a spellbook." So what does this mean? 'A wizard can take a rubbing of the spell [now] and [later follow the rules to decipher and] copy it into a spellbook', or 'A wizard can take a rubbing of the spell [now] and [then immediately spend 14 hours and 350gp of materials to] copy it into a spellbook [but only at this location]'?

Both of these passages, in my opinion, suggest that it is possible to collect a version of a spell in no more time than it would take to recreate the actual symbols without understanding them, and then later do the time-consuming process of changing them into one's own notation.

A note on terminology

The process of placing a spell into one's spellbook is called by the PHB 'deciphering and copying'. I think it may be deliberate that in neither of these two cases do the adventures refer to wizards 'copying' the spells that are available - rather, in the first they 'record' the spell, and in the second, they 'take a rubbing'. For me, this is a clue that wizards are indeed permitted to separate out step (1) of the overall spell copying process from the other steps.

If you agree, you might change the title of your question from 'Can a wizard copy' to 'Can a wizard record'.


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